The Charlottesville 29

If there were just 29 restaurants in Charlottesville, what would be the ideal 29?

Oktoberfest 2020 Style, Via The Bavarian Chef

Oktoberfest is technically over. Actually, it did not take place at all, as Bavarian Minister-President Markus Soder cancelled this year’s iteration of the annual festival. Amusingly, the official announcement attributes the cancellation to the “Corona Pandemic” — as if beach-week Mexican beers had somehow displaced German Märzens from Munich. But, even if Oktoberfest had proceeded, it would have ended two weeks ago.

2020, though, is all about adapting and adjusting. And, that we did. The facts that Oktoberfest was cancelled, Oktoberfest would already have been over even if not cancelled, and we are in the middle of a pandemic could not prevent us from celebrating Oktoberfest last night. In announcing the cancellation of Oktoberfest, its director Clemens Baumgärtner explained that the festival is a “total work of art that you either do completely or not at all.” With our apologies to Herr. Baumgärtner, we gathered with a small group in a friend’s backyard, socially distanced, to toast the world’s largest folk festival. Since we could not go to Bavaria, we brought Bavaria to us.

The Bavarian Chef

German natives Eckhard and Bruni Thalwitz opened The Bavarian Chef in April 1974. Forty-six years later, the beloved German restaurant is now run by their son Jerome and his wife Christine. Against the advice of his parents, who told Jerome never to become a chef, Jerome has been in the hospitality industry nearly his entire life, and still recalls the moment he knew it was for him. He was eleven years old, sitting on the back steps of The Bavarian Chef with his father after a busy Saturday service. Jerome’s father halved a cantaloupe and filled each half with sherbet for them. “We sat eating and looking at the mountains,” said Jerome. “Something about that moment cemented my love for the business.”

Fast forward to 2020, and the decades of experience of Jerome and his wife sure show. Veterans of the industry, the Thalwitzes are masters of hospitality, and COVID-19 has done nothing to change that. During the pandemic, you can still enjoy Jerome’s food takeout or on-premises at The Bavarian Chef or from The Bavarian Chef’s food truck around town. Perhaps best of all, though, is bringing The Bavarian Chef to you.

Wiesn Feast

In Bavaria, locals call Oktoberfest Wiesn. Our Wiesn feast was a reminder that life is about experiences not things. From food to setting to service, the Thalwitzes created a flawless experience, the memory of which will warm our hearts for years to come.

The feast began with a brotzeit board of meats, cheeses, wurst, and more.

Also, beautifully served pretzels with bier cheese.

And Flammkuchen, German flatbread with brisket marinated in beer, gouda, banana peppers, and herbed creme fraiche.

True to its origins, The Bavarian Chef remains a family affair. The Thalwitzes’ son Alexi bakes and serves at the restaurant, their son Jared manages the new ice cream truck and works on the food truck, and their daughter, Katya, hostesses in the restaurant. Katya joined Christine in cheerfully passing appetizers to our group.

Like reuben streudel bites.

And, a dish that immediately rivals wings as a favorite gameday food. Mini pork shanks tossed in “sugar beet glaze” – a reduction of Zuckerruben sirup, cognac, demi-glace, and crushed red pepper.

Entrees, served family style, included an array of sausages and meats. Jerome sources his sausages from Binkert’s, a Baltimore supplier beloved by German expats. Bauernwurst, or farmer’s sausage, combined coarsely ground, smoked pork and beef, with onion, garlic, marjoram and mustard seeds. Weisswurst, pale white as its name suggests, blended finely ground veal and bacon with parsley, onion, lemon and cardamom. And there was of course bratwurst, the classic German sausage of finely minced pork and beef.

As for the other meats, there were two kinds of schnitzel: wiener and mandel. A classically trained chef, Jerome reveres food history and traditions, but he also inherited a creative streak from his father, and the schnitzels reflected both approaches. Wiener (meaning Viennese) is perhaps the most well-known version: fried breaded veal, which we enjoyed with traditional accompaniments, lemon wedges and anchovies. Mandel (meaning almond), is Jerome’s own creation – fried pork tenderloin cutlets coated in almonds, with a sauce of gin, honey and strawberry.

Last but not least was Schweinshaxen, an Oktoberfest dish of roast pork hock. Also known as pork knuckle, the hock is the joint at the bottom of a pig’s shank between the tibia/fibula and the ankle.

Sides, all traditional, included sauerkraut, red cabbage, and handmade spaetzle.

Jerome also knows his wine and beer, and his selections were spot on – whether enjoyed on their own or as an Oktoberfestoni.

Bavaria and Virginia

When Jerome’s parents chose central Virginia as the site for their restaurant nearly fifty years ago, it was in part because they were so enchanted by the mountains and landscape, which reminded them of their native Germany. But, it’s not just geography that the region shares with Bavaria, Jerome says. ““The values of Virginia are the same as Bavaria,” Jerome said. “It’s just that feeling of welcoming. They take their time to say hello to you, to get to know you.”

Welcoming indeed.

Five Finds on Friday: Kate Asquith

Todays Five Finds on Friday come from Kate Asquith of Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, a nonprofit organization that trains and supports people to become beekeepers in economically distressed areas of Virginia and West Virginia. Appalachian Beekeeping Collective then purchases honey from its beekeepers and sells it online, with all proceeds going back to the non-profit’s efforts to support beekeepers. This week Appalachian Beekeeping Collective launched its new online store, where you can buy delicious honey, while supporting their cause. Feel-good holiday gifts. Asquith’s picks:

1) Scallion Bubble Pancake from Peter Chang. “My whole family is in love with these, but my six-year-old especially. She will tell anyone who asks that it’s her favorite food. It’s the main thing keeping my hope alive that she’ll be an interesting eater.”

2) Fresh Mozzarella Sandwich from Market Street Market. “I think this is a perfect sandwich. I also don’t understand how they can make such good salads for less than $5. Of all the things I have missed during the pandemic, I think I miss the Market’s deli the most.”

3) Morning Melt Sandwich on Everything Croissant from Bowerbird Bakeshop. “My second favorite sandwich in Charlottesville right now, and especially when they had fresh tomatoes this summer. I like to meet a friend here and then bring a box of their gorgeous pastries home for my family. Also a big fan of their rosemary almond croissant.”

4) Triple Pickle Taco from Brazos Tacos. “Honestly, I just go down their menu and pick all the tacos with the mushrooms bruja. This is my favorite.”

5) La Familia from Al Carbon. “A full rotisserie chicken and several sides. This is my go-to takeout. My children are probably 15% pollo al carbon at this point, we get it so often. My favorite side is the platanos fritos with the delicious cinnamon cream sauce. The rest of my family practically lives off yucca fries and yellow rice.”

A Passion to Serve: Why Charlottesville Restaurants Need Us

On March 19, Bodo’s Bagels opened a drive-through. A first for the restaurant, the drive-through required a complete overhaul of Bodo’s signature service system. The result was a contact-free way for Bodo’s legion of regulars to get their bagel fix without compromising public health. Half a year into a pandemic, Bodo’s has served hundreds of thousands of bagels, and not a single employee has tested positive for COVID-19.

Bodo’s drive-through is just one of many extraordinary efforts of Charlottesville restaurants in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. After pausing briefly in March, restaurants sprung into action. The ingenuity and innovation evoke awe.

“These are unprecedented times,” said Al Carbon’s Myriam Hernandez. “As an industry, we have been forced to evolve and experiment with new approaches, making mistakes, learning and hoping they work out for the safety of our community.”

For diners, the rewards have been immeasurable. In lives darkened by a pandemic, restaurants have brought light. Delicious escapes and interludes.

Staff have benefited, too. At Bodo’s, business has been so good that the restaurant is now fully staffed and has even hired back former employees who lost jobs elsewhere due to the pandemic. The core team behind Bang!, Bizou, and Luce is likewise intact. “We’ve created a family,” said co-owner Tim Burgess. “Our job is to keep the family thriving.” 

What gave life to this burst of creativity from Charlottesville restaurateurs? The same thing that brought them to the industry in the first place: a passion to serve.

“I like to lift people up, make them happier. It’s a passion,” said Wilson Richey, whose Ten Course Hospitality manages several local restaurants. “It’s so rewarding to see a smile,” said Hernandez. The Local’s Melissa Close-Hart agrees. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” she said.

Amidst all the havoc COVID-19 has wreaked, it could not snuff out the passion that drives Charlottesville restaurants. “Shutting down never seemed a viable choice,” said Bodo’s owner Scott Smith. When a pandemic blocked the usual outlet for restaurateurs’ passion to serve, they just built other outlets.

Winter is Coming

Despite restaurants’ creativity, many are still struggling, with some reporting a 60-70% drop in revenues. In an industry with margins as thin as restaurants’, this is not sustainable.

Worse, winter is coming. Having scraped by for a half year on loans, takeout business, and patio service, restaurants now brace for months of cold weather. “Winter will be a true test,” said Close-Hart. An annual slow period in normal conditions, winter in a pandemic could cause a rash of permanent closures — a fate that has already befallen such icons as Bashir’s, Bluegrass Grill & Bakery, BreadWorks, and Downtown Grill.

“Bleak,” one owner described the outlook. “Uncertain,” said another. “Winter is going to be very hard,” said Richey. “A good handful of places will not survive.” Indeed, the coming chill leaves some restaurateurs stuck between survival and public health. “I will be forced to open indoors to survive, but would prefer not to for staff safety,” said one owner.

On the other side of winter, what will the Charlottesville restaurant scene look like? “There are so many restaurants in this storm that many of us are bound to sink,” said Blue Moon Diner’s Laura Galgano. Come April, will your favorites be gone?

How to Save Charlottesville Restaurants: Culture of Takeout II

Not if diners take action now. When the pandemic hit in March, Charlottesville embraced a Culture of Takeout — a way to help restaurants survive while bringing bright spots into our lives of seclusion. Maya’s Christian Kelly recalls that the pandemic seemed to illuminate the importance and culture of Charlottesville’s restaurants, and, as a result, diners stepped up to put their money where their mouth is. Zocalo’s Ivan Rekosh agrees. “When this all started, the culture of takeout was strong,” said Rekosh.

Over the time, though, business lagged. “It has waned a lot,” said Rekosh, “and it is getting harder for restaurants that choose not to open indoors for safety to compete.”

To survive the winter, then, Charlottesville restaurants will need a reboot of what helped them through the year: a Culture of Takeout. Adopting a habit of brightening your day with a restaurant meal could make all the difference for restaurants’ survival. “An extra trip for curbside pickup,” said Burgess, “could save a place.”

Through their remarkable ingenuity, Charlottesville restaurants have shown how desperately they want to serve us. Now, it is up to us to give them that chance.

Join the Culture of Takeout here.